Welcome back to Dirty Work, our series of dispatches from the MUNCHIES Garden. We're inviting chefs, bartenders, and personalities in the world of food and drink to explore our edible playground and make whatever the hell inspires them with our rooftop produce. In the latest installment, chef Ayesha Nurdjaja stops in to show us how to do shakshuka the Shuka way.
Sometimes, the best part about having chefs come to the MUNCHIES Test Kitchen to cook with us happens way before any food is actually cooked. It happens out on the roof, in our garden. It’s not often that New York City chefs get the chance to play farmer, too, unless you’re Dan Barber, but here at MUNCHIES, they get to play make believe for a little while.
“Look at how fucking perfect this radish is,” says chef Ayesha Nurdjaja, holding up one of our early radishes, which is remarkably uniform and pink and downright cute. “This is the most perfect fucking radish I’ve ever seen.”
Ayesha is the executive chef of Shuka, a small Mediterranean restaurant in SoHo, across the river in Manhattan. She’s here today making, fittingly, shakshuka with scallops and clams—a version of the egg-in-sauce dish that’s more fitting for dinner than for the traditional breakfast. I don’t even think the radish is going in the dish, but she’s right, it’s adorable and perfect and I don’t blame her for picking it. It’ll be a snack while we wait for the dish to come together, maybe.
When we’re done perusing the early-season offerings in the garden, we head inside to start cooking. She’s pulled one of our bulbs of fresh garlic, which she peels with ease (so much easier than the cured kind), and minces up several cloves. She does the same with a fresh red onion whose skins are such a deep, vibrant purple it looks damn near fake. “I want a lipstick this color,” she laughs.
The garlic and onion are tossed in a heavy-bottomed pot with a little bit of the green tops of the onions sliced up, too, plus a generous glug of olive oil. Next in are the building blocks of all that good shakshuka flavor—a whole bunch of saffron threads, paprika, coriander, cumin, ginger, and turmeric. “Mmm, that right there,” she hums, “is life.”
Today she’s using canned San Marzano tomatoes, but she’s used fresh tomatoes before, too. Don’t bother peeling them, just chop ‘em up and let em stew. “I know people get freaked out about tomato skins, but it doesn’t bother me.” Into the pot they go, with some rough chopped cilantro, also from our garden.
While the shakshuka base simmers and flavors build, she starts confit-ing Yukon gold potatoes in a hefty amount of olive oil with salt and a pinch of saffron. When they’re all done later, they’ll be melt in your mouth soft and insanely bright yellow.
Next, she gets her seafood ready. In a screaming hot pan, she sears off a few scallops so they’re perfectly caramelized on one side only, then lets them rest on a plate. She ladles some of the tomato liquid into her shakshuka pan, and nestles her clams so they’re just about fully submerged. They'll steam open in the thickened sauce.
While the pan simmers gently, she scatters some rinsed canned chickpeas, big fat Castelvetrano olives, and more green onion tops and cilantro. While we wait for the last few clams to open up, she spoons some of the poached potatoes and scallops interspersed throughout the clams. At every stage, she throws an extra glug of olive oil into the pot or pan, for good measure. “Not gonna hurt anything to have a little more,” she says. She finishes the whole thing with a squeeze of lemon juice, a handful of torn herbs, and some pretty edible flowers from the garden, "just 'cause I can," she says.
The day she was visiting, Ayesha said she had just taken this dinner shakshuka off of the menu. “I just couldn’t bear to look at it anymore,” she confesses in her sassy, matter-of-fact Brooklyn accent. “Sometimes, when you love things, you just gotta take a break.”
But with the way everyone in our test kitchen was starting to circle the stove like vultures, waiting for the green light to dive in forks-first, it probably didn’t stay off the menu for long. Some dishes are just too good to let go forever.